Joseph Toahty, Pawnee Warrior of Guadalcanal

Joseph Toahty's enlistment photo, age 21 (National Archives)

Published Nov 5, 2019 10:02 PM by William Thiesen

I am very pleased to forward a Purple Heart Medal and Certificate to you for service at Guadalcanal in August of 1942. Men such as you who have made great contributions to the grand heritage of the Coast Guard make me proud to be a member of our service. - Capt. James Parent, Office of Personnel, U.S. Coast Guard, 1984

Native American Joseph Robert Toahty came from a large and patriotic family. He had six brothers who fought in World War II. In 1984, he related to a newspaper reporter, “At one time, my mother had a son in every branch of the service.”

Joseph Toahty was born in Oklahoma in 1919. He was half Pawnee and half Kiowa Indian and inherited the name Le-Tuts-Taka, or “White Eagle,” from Pawnee ancestor Chief White Eagle, who performed distinguished service as a U.S. Army scout during and after the Civil War. Joseph Toahty was also a graduate of the well-known Haskell Institute for Native Americans located in Lawrence, Kansas. After graduating from Haskell, he worked as a carpenter at the Army base at Fort Sill, Oklahoma, and served in the Kansas National Guard.

A faded image of marines landing on Guadalcanal on August 7, 1942. The marines landing on Guadalcanal far outnumbered the unprepared Japanese troops and civilian airfield workers on the island, so the enemy fled for the cover of Guadalcanal’s jungle interior. (U.S. Navy)

In June 1941, Toahty enlisted in the Coast Guard and, a year later, he deployed for Guadalcanal, the Allies’ first amphibious operation of World War II. During his time in the Service, Toahty and the Coast Guard would establish a record of firsts. After enlisting in the Coast Guard, he became the first Pawnee Indian to go to sea. As a member of the Guadalcanal invasion force, Toahty also became the first Native American to participate in a U.S. naval offensive operation and the first to set foot in enemy territory during the war.

At Guadalcanal, the Coast Guard established its own U.S. Naval Operating Base (NOB) for the first time in its history. The code name for this little Coast Guard-run navy base was NOB “Cactus.” At its peak, NOB Cactus included about 30 LCPs, also known as Higgins Boats, and a dozen bow-ramped tank lighters. Fifty officers and enlisted men manned the base, including 23-year-old Motor Machinist Mate Joseph Toahty. NOB Cactus’s primary mission was to run troops and supplies from transport ships to the beaches of Guadalcanal.

Toahty’s unit performed far more missions than merely supplying the troops. They provided important radio and communications link between land forces and offshore vessels. Its craft navigated the waters off Guadalcanal and islands as distant as 60 miles to land Marines and retrieve them when necessary. Its boats inserted reconnaissance teams led by British Colonial Forces officers behind enemy lines. In the aftermath of aerial dogfights in the air and naval battles on the surface of nearby Iron Bottom Sound, NOB watercraft took to open water to retrieve wounded Americans and Japanese prisoners. For a time, NOB personnel fitted their landing craft with depth charges and conducted nightly anti-submarine patrols. Coast Guard personnel also pitched-in to defend Marine Corps positions by serving artillery pieces and providing infantry support.

NOB Cactus included an odd collection of coconut plantation buildings, homemade shacks and tents as well as log-reinforced dugout shelters. The Coast Guardsmen of NOB Cactus used the dugout bomb shelters frequently due to enemy bombing, naval shelling and artillery fire that took place nearly every day. In one of these bombardments, Toahty and seven others took cover in one of the dugout bomb shelters. The large foxhole suffered a direct hit, killing the shelter’s occupants except Toahty and one other survivor. After regaining consciousness, Toahty suffered from a severe concussion with heavy bleeding from his nose, ears and mouth. After visiting the Marine Corps infirmary, he received treatment and returned to duty.

Loading operations on the beach at Guadalcanal (U.S. Navy)

In January 1943, Toahty rotated off the island with battle weary elements of the Coast Guard and First Marine Division. When he departed the island, the battle for Guadalcanal had entered its sixth month. By then, the marines had secured the Allied position on the island and elements of the U.S. Army relieved them. Toahty redeployed to New Zealand where native Polynesians threw an all-day ceremony in his honor. According to Toahty, he “was the first American Indian they had ever seen.” In the village where he was honored, the natives “treated me as if I were a king; and in fact one of the dances they performed was reserved strictly for royalty. I hated to leave that village.”

Like many who served in the Guadalcanal campaign, Toahty contracted malaria. His case was particularly virulent, with recurrent attacks and hospitalizations. He returned home from the Pacific to serve at various units and traveled with War Bond drives across the U.S. For example, he participated in the “Back Salerno Airmada” with other military heroes and celebrities, such as movie star William “Hopalong Cassidy” Boyd. He later toured with Iwo Jima marine hero Ira Hayes, Medal of Honor celebrity Audie Murphy and the “Hollywood Cavalcade” of movie stars. In 1945, after suffering almost monthly attacks from malaria, he received an honorable discharge and got out.

A posed World War II photograph of MoMM2 Joseph Toahty in dress blues shot by Coast Guard photographers. (U.S. Coast Guard)

Guadalcanal was one of the most honored combat operations in Coast Guard history. President Franklin Roosevelt awarded the Presidential Unit Citation (PUC) to the “First Marine Division, Reinforced” with the word “Reinforced” honoring support units, such as the Coast Guardsmen serving on the island. In addition to the PUC (which many equate to the Navy Cross Medal on an individual basis), Toahty merited the Purple Heart Medal for suffering wounds in combat from the near miss in the bomb shelter. In 1984, the Coast Guard presented Toahty his long overdue Purple Heart Medal and four campaign medals he earned for wartime service.

Joseph Toahty passed away in Oklahoma City in 1997 at the age of 77. He was among the thousands of distinguished Coast Guard combat veterans who have served in the long blue line.

William Thiessen is the Coast Guard Atlantic Area historian. This article appears courtesy of Coast Guard Compass and may be found in its original form here

The opinions expressed herein are the author's and not necessarily those of The Maritime Executive.